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Commentary: Grouse hunting on foot too valuable to be lost to ATV proliferation

It is true that few sporting endeavors are more physically challenging than busting through thick stands of aspen, oak, ash and gray dogwood, while following a good dog in search of ruffed grouse.

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Pointing dog trainer Jerry Kolter awaits the return of his English setter while hunting grouse and woodcock in Pine County in Minnesota.
Dennis Anderson / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS
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That for some people a ruffed grouse is just another bird of the forest, or perhaps dinner on a plate, while for others it is an object of mystery and adoration, is never more evident than during the hunting season for these fan-tailed fowl, which opened in Minnesota on Sept. 17.

This disconnect between factions that pursue Ol' Ruff — which generally can be divided into foot walkers and scabbard-toting ATV riders — might go a long way toward explaining why so few wing shooters are pursuing these birds today.

In 2020, 63,428 grouse hunters went afield in the state, a fraction over the 2019 record low of 61,608.

Compare these tallies with the (modern-day) record-high number of grouse hunters — 161,624 — in 1989.

Apologists for the falloff trot out the usual explanations.

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Old-timers, they say, are graying out of the sport. Other hunters lack sufficient time, or money. Still others — suffering perhaps from a uniquely American affliction, and a contemporaneous one — prefer, no matter their age, to kick back and take it easy.

It is true that few sporting endeavors are more physically challenging than busting through thick stands of aspen, oak, ash and gray dogwood, while following a good dog in search of ruffed grouse.

So perhaps the hunters-getting-older/hunting-costs too-much/I'd rather-lie-on-the-couch-and-watch-the-Twins explanations account for some participation losses.

But turning a blind eye to what's happening on the Minnesota landscape, laced as it is with evermore ATV trails — thanks in part to the Department of Natural Resources working hand in glove with the state's ATV industry — plays a role, too.

In 2020, when some 325,000 ATVs were registered in Minnesota, nearly 3,000 miles of ATV trails coursed through the state, about double the length of trails as recently as 2005, with additional trails added in the years since.

In and of itself, no problem. ATVs have their place, whether used for utilitarian purposes, such as farming, or for recreation, and people who own them should have places to ride.

But neither should it be inevitable that Minnesota is carved up to the detriment of other forest users, among them hikers, birdwatchers and, perhaps especially, foot-walking grouse hunters.

Minnesota is, after all, the nation's No. 1 destination for ruffed grouse and ruffed grouse hunting. The state has more public forest land than other states, and better grouse habitat.

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Yet, and still — unlike what has occurred with Minnesota pheasant and duck hunters, whose numbers have declined as their respective bird numbers have fallen — state grouse hunters have dropped off even as the bird's population surveys have stayed relatively positive.

That record year — 1989 — when more than 161,000 grouse hunters went afield?

The statewide spring drumming count (an index of the population size) that year was 1.9 drums per stop (meaning that volunteers heard, on average, that many male grouse beat their wings, or "drum,'' at certain points along specific routes).

Twenty-eight years later, in 2017, the statewide drumming count was even higher, at 2.1, but that year only 80,654 wing shooters chased grouse.

Obviously, increases in ATV trails and usage aren't the only reasons for the falloff. But the proliferation of ATVs plays a role, as do the state's antiquated trapping regulations that result too often in grouse-hunting and other dogs being caught and killed in body-gripping traps.

Not that many years ago, in the 1980s, a sizable proportion of Minnesota grouse hunters — more, I'd bet, than is the case today — fashioned their lifestyles around ruffed grouse and ruffed grouse hunting.

The late Bud Tordoff, the former director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, embodied this group.

An owner, breeder and trainer of English setters, Tordoff relished his autumn days in the woods, trailing his dogs, and the exercise and insights he gained from these experiences. Rewarding as well were his offseason months, whether in discussions with others who shared his passions, while exercising or training a dog, or while prospecting a covert.

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In this respect, he and others like him saw, and see, themselves less as hunters of grouse, meaning, in this respect killers of grouse, than as members of an interdependent group that also includes dogs, birds and forest health.

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A soulmate in this regard, the late writer and artist George Bird Evans of West Virginia, was for many years a sort-of philosophical guru for ruffed grouse hunters, and hunting.

"If I seem to speak of each grouse and each woodcock and each pheasant as a special thing, it is because I feel that way about the birds," Evans wrote. "The difference between mere killing and a glorious sport is the manner in which you do it — over thrilling dogs, in magnificent country and with a near-reverence for the game. If anyone can dig up something nice to say about me I hope it will be, 'He loved bird shooting, but more than that, he loved the bird.' "

This thinking, obviously, and way of living, compares not at all to climbing on a four-wheeler and driving along a trail until a grouse is spotted, and a trigger is pulled.

I get it that the world is too complex with too many inhabitants to expect any one group to be favored over others. And I make no judgments of ATV owners, of whom I'm one.

But it should be the case, nevertheless, that in some instances an old way of doing things is valued, and preserved.

This is perhaps especially true for walks in the woods in autumn, with a good dog out ahead, when the intent is to put a bird in the bag, but more so, as Thoreau suggested, to learn what there is to teach.

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